Herbarium Metaphors

Herbarium Verbarium, Claudette Sartiliot

The last post in this series on books about herbaria is different from the others (1,2,3).  It won’t focus on one book, but touch on many.  What they have in common is their use of the word “herbarium” metaphorically; pressed plants are hardly mentioned, though they do come up in one book, Claudette Sartiliot’s (1993) work of literary criticism Herbarium Verbarium: The Discourse of Flowers.  Herbarium here is used to signify all plants, not just dead ones.  Sartiliot writes that she concentrates on modern and post-modern writers who use the flower “to reveal its polyvalent and extravagant nature, its verbal, psychological and botanical significances” (p. 2). 

Not surprisingly, Sigmund Freud is among the writers Sartiliot cites, discussing a section of his The Interpretation of Dreams in which he recounts one of his dreams.  In it, he had written a monograph about a plant and bound in each copy was a dried specimen of the plant, “as though it had been taken from a herbarium” (Sartiliot, p. 19, from Freud’s Chapter 5).  Later she writes that in this dream Freud moved from text to plant, and this is a theme she returns to often.  She also describes Proust as writing as a botanist, a psychologist, and an artist.  She adds “it is according to these principles that I have tried to read him and the other writers in this book” (p. 152).  I have to admit that I am not accustomed to reading literary criticism, and I am not at all adept at deciphering the layers of meaning in good literature.  But I did find Sartiliot’s observation interesting that the relationship between herbarium and verbarium is not new; it is “part of a long, but forgotten tradition in which botany and literature are linked; as science and humanities once were” (p. 34).

Non-botanical books with herbarium in the title link science and the humanities in very different ways.  Giovanni Aloi’s (2019) Lucien Freud Herbarium is a study of the British portrait painter’s portraits of plants, a portion of his work of which I was unaware.  Freud did not always choose the most beautiful people to paint, and the same is true of plants.  But in both cases, his work is masterful—realistic, yet also expressionistic.  Aloi works in the area of critical plant studies, at the border between literature and philosophy, exploring alternate ways of thinking about plants and questioning the “privileged” position of humans relative to plants (Aloi, 2018).  The central issue here is whether plants should be seen as a “lower” form of life relative to animals.  This also relates to the changing focus in plant research with plants now perceived as more active agents and more responsive to their environments than they were considered in the past.  In some cases this leads to questions of plant mind and plant consciousness, areas that I am no more able to address than those of literary criticism. 

One of the leaders of the critical plant studies movement is Michael Marder and two of his books have “herbarium” in their titles.  The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium (2013) is a series of essays on how philosophers through the ages, from Plato to Hegel, have employed plants as metaphors in their writings.  Here he uses herbarium in a way it is often used metaphorically:  to signify a grouping of plants in a particular context.  Marder’s (2016) The Chernobyl Herbarium: Fragments of an Exploded Consciousness features a collection of plants, but in this case photographs.  They are very artistically done studies by Anaïs Tondeur.  She took plants that had been grown in the radiation-contaminated soil around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine and pressed them, not onto paper, but onto photographic plates, which were exposed by the radiation emitted by the specimens.  The results are ghostly images of the plants that are a perfect counterpoint to Marder’s text in which he describes living as a boy in the area downwind of Chernobyl at the time of the explosion. 

Also in the photography realm is William Arnold’s (2020) Suburban Herbarium, a collection of photos of plants growing around where he lives and works.  In the commentary, it’s noted that the photography pioneer Henry Fox Talbot was a serious amateur botanist and thought that accurate recording of plant specimens would become an important contribution made by his invention.  In A Painted Herbarium: The Life and Art of Emily Hitchcock Terry (1838-1921) by Beatrice Smith (1992), herbarium refers to Terry’s botanical illustrations of Minnesota plants.  Then there’s Gianna Gatti’s (2010) The Technological Herbarium, a review of art that relates plants to technology from immersive environments taking the viewer inside a tree to being able to watch a garden growing on the internet.  Lastly, Herbarium Taste is a bilingual Italian/English guide to vegetables by Valentina Raffaelli (2015).  What these four books have in common is that they are all visual feasts, and all stress the visual rather than the informational aspects of herbaria.  Also, they assume the reader will think of plants when they read the title, and live plants, not dead ones.  They are essentially using the word herbarium as it was used in the early modern era to mean an illustrated book about plants, well before the French botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort referred to collections of pressed plants as herbaria in 1694 (Arber, 1938). 


Aloi, G. (Ed.). (2018). Botanical Speculations. New Castle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars.

Aloi, G. (2019). Lucian Freud Herbarium. Munich: Prestel.

Arber, A. (1938). Herbals: Their Origin and Evolution a Chapter in the History of Botany, 1470-1670 (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Arnold, W. (2020). Suburban Herbarium. Axminster, UK: Uniformbooks.

Gatti, G. M. (2010). The Technological Herbarium (A. N. Shapiro, Trans.). Berlin: Avinus.

Marder, M. (2014). The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium. New York: Columbia University Press.

Marder, M. (2016). The Chernobyl Herbarium: Fragments of an Exploded Consciousness. London: Open Humanities Press.

Raffaelli, V. (2015). Herbarium Taste: The Four Seasons. Mantua, ITA: Corraini.

Sartiliot, C. (1993). Herbarium Verbarium: The Discourse of Flowers. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Smith, B. S. (1992). A Painted Herbarium: The Life and Art of Emily Hitchcock Terry, 1838-1921. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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